Alberta Family Wellness: Learning Cards

Photo Credit: Unsplash User  Juan Encalada

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Juan Encalada

The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) facilitates research into early brain development as well as addiction and mental health treatment, and applies this research to policies and practices designed to support positive lifelong health outcomes.

On the AFW website at https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/doc/learning-cards they have made available a set of five Learning Cards covering the topics of:

  • Brain Architecture: how early experiences build brains talks about how “building better brains is possible by exposing children to positive, nurturing interactions at a young age. These positive experiences are the bricks that build sturdy brain architecture, leading to improved learning and behaviour as well as better physical, mental, and social wellbeing throughout life.”

  • Toxic Stress: a force that disrupts brain architecture talks about the concepts of “good” stress (e.g. meeting new people), “tolerable stress” (e.g. a death in the family) and “toxic stress” (e.g. abuse or neglect) in clear, plain language. The information card notes the value of supportive caregivers in mitigating the impact of traumatic events, but that “young children whose brain development has been disrupted by toxic stress, [when ‘no supportive caregivers are around to buffer the body’s response to repeated negative experiences’] are at a much higher risk for later physical and mental health problems, including addiction.”

  • Air Traffic Control: the “executive function” system of the brain talks about the skill set the child needs to develop to learn to pay attention, plan ahead, deal with conflicts, and follow rules at home or in the classroom, pointing out that “these skills can be built throughout childhood and into early adulthood through practice and coaching.”

  • Serve & Return: positive interactions build sturdy brain architecture talks about how the communication interactions “tennis match” of serve and return between a child and a caregiver (such as speaking back, playing games, or sharing a toy or a laugh) “exchanged throughout a young person’s developing years are the bricks that build a healthy foundation for all future development.”

  • Resilience: tipping the scale toward positive outcomes talks about how the foundations of resilience, strong brain architecture and executive skills, “which develop over time, based on the interaction of genes and life experiences” create resilience, “the ability to stay healthy even in circumstances of severe stress”.

The naming terms used on each card were developed by the FrameWorks Institute, an independent non-profit organization founded in 1999 to advance the non-profit sector’s communication capacity by identifying, translating, and modelling relevant scholarly research for framing the public discourse about social problems, through a long-standing working relationship with the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and its partner, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

A September 2016 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy talks about the resonance of terms such as “brain architecture” or “brain air traffic control”, and notes that initially the Council’s child-development experts expressed concern that these concrete phrases might represent over-simplification of their complex work. Al Race, deputy director and chief knowledge office at the Harvard center is quoted. He comments that, for example, whilst some experts initially rejected FrameWorks’ phrase “toxic stress” to explain the impact of trauma on a child’s developing brain, “But when they say how memorable it was, and that it didn’t distort the meaning of this complex science, they came around to it.”

ResourcesNelli Agbulos